Bolivia legalises and expands ‘savage’ deforestation for China and Russia beef deals


New Decree is said to violate landmark Mother Earth law by opening up an additional 4.5 million hectares to cattle ranchers in El Beni department

Decree 3973 is expected to increase cattle production from three million to six million heads per year by 2030 in El Beni. Photo: Creative Commons

A new Bolivian Decree legalising expanded land clearances for cattle and crops is legitimising ‘savage’ deforestation in violation of the country’s landmark Mother Earth law, a local NGO has warned.

Supreme Decree 3973, passed in July, permits 4.5 million hectares of previously protected private and community forest lands to be cleared in the northeast region of El Beni.

El Beni governor Álex Ferrier said the Decree doubles the land available for agriculture production to 9 million hectares – the same level afforded to the central Santa Cruz department.

The two departments already account for 74% of the South American nation’s cattle production, with El Beni providing 31%.

The Decree is expected to increase cattle production from three million to six million heads per year by 2030 in El Beni. Supporters hope the move will help take Bolivia into the top 15 beef producers worldwide and tap into emerging markets as part of a strategy to counter a slump in oil export revenues.

Its announcement came days after officials signed a beef and cattle trade deal with China. A similar agreement with Russia is mooted.

China purchased more than $4m of beef from its five biggest importers – Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Australia and New Zealand – in 2018, a 60% rise from 2017, trade data shows.

The president of Bolivia’s Confederation of Livestock Producers, Óscar Ciro Pereira, said the country could export as many as 500,000 heads of cattle per year under the deal. The first exports are slated for August.

However, Pablo Solón, director of the La Paz-based Solón Foundation, says the loosening of restrictions on deforestation through Decree 3973 is legitimising already rampant deforestation – both legal and illegal – in violation of the Mother Earth law.

“Bolivia has a law that is above other laws – the law of Mother Earth – but the government doesn’t respect it,” Solón told Earthsight: “Deforestation at this scale is a crime against the rights of Mother Earth. If the law is applied as it should, the legalisation of deforestation is a crime.”

The landmark Mother Earth law, passed in 2012, gives nature equal rights to humans and states that citizens must ‘respect, protect and guarantee’ the rights of nature. 

Nonetheless, implementation has been poor, and Solón says “the deforestation that is being carried out in Bolivia is completely anarchic, savage.”

The government has said it is committed to eradicating illegal clearances and that illegal deforestation as a proportion of total deforestation (estimated to be around 300,000 hectares per year) dropped from 92% in 2012 to 64% in 2015.

However, Solón believes this misses the point: “The fact that you legalise what is illegal, that’s what’s bad. You commit a crime and I tell you ‘that’s no longer a crime’, [and] so legalising the crime makes it disappear.”

Solón says that government data shows illegal deforestation in El Beni in 2015 was 120,910 hectares – a 32% increase from 2012, and legal land clearances skyrocketed from 9600 hectares in 2012 to 83,092 hectares in 2015.

Global Forest Watch data shows Bolivia lost nearly five million hectares of tree cover between 2001 and 2018, while land used for agriculture and livestock had more than doubled to 6.7 million hectares.

The push to increase cattle exports could also result in the 2013 perdonazo law being shelved. Under the so-called “forgiveness” legislation, producers must reforest land if they have carried out illegal land clearing for agriculture.

Pereira unsurprisingly welcomed the possible rolling back of the law, but for Solón it represents another failure of the government’s highly publicised reforestation efforts.

A 2016 initiative to plant 4.5 million hectares of trees by 2030 to reverse vegetation loss has failed spectacularly, replanting only up to 15,000 hectares a year, of which only around 40% are thought to survive, the Solón Foundation claims.

Challenging Decree 3973 and the possible removal of the forgiveness law will not be easy in a country where the executive branch of government has control over the judiciary and prosecutors.

Solón said: “If there’s no social and international pressure on Bolivia, the government will carry on. The government has more than two thirds to change the Supreme Court, district courts, the prosecutors’ office. This is what it has been doing.”

Efforts to eradicate deforestation are made harder-still while corrupt practices persist. In July, local media reported how a former forest official issued permits covering up 22,000 hectares of illegal land clearances for soy and cattle production in Santa Cruz.

On 8 August the UN’s Land and Climate Change report concluded that a move to plant-based diets away from beef and dairy consumption is required to achieve globally agreed climate targets.

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